Baseball is a language all its own; the game has a syntax as surely as a sentence does. And baseball has writing all its own, too: Ball Four by Jim Bouton, The Summer Game by Roger Angell, The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle. David Halberstam, Don DeLillo; Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon: the names are legion and legendary.
As are the grammar and style questions that writing about baseball generates. My friends and I have argued over everything from whether it's a RBI (pronounced "a ribbie") or an RBI (pronounced "an ARE BE I"); whether it's 10 RBI (runs batted in) or 10 RBIs; a Dodgers player or a Dodger player?
As an aficionado of baseball, baseball writing, and Josh Wilker's baseball writing in particular, I was overjoyed when I learned his wildly popular blog Cardboard Gods had grown up into his new book, Cardboard Gods, his brilliant memoir about growing up in the '70s.
I pitched three questions to Josh:
What is a common baseball-related grammar query or conundrum?
One I ran into a lot is how to treat "Sox" when you're referring to a singular player. With other teams, this is not an issue: for example, "The Yankee I hate the most is Alex Rodriguez, that Yankee who exudes arrogance more than all others, except perhaps for the Yankee at shortstop, who does his arrogance-exuding slyly." But when you use Sox as a singular entity (as the Boston Globe does, I think), it sorta sounds wrong; for example, "Bill Lee is one Sox who was able to get the better of the Yankees until Graig Nettles ambushed him during a 1976 brawl and separated the Sox' shoulder." I usually try to rephrase the sentence and avoid the singular Sox usage if I can.
What grammatical or stylistic issue makes you most irate?
Does cliched phrasing count? If so, I'd like to lash out against the phrase "it is what it is." This phrase, still used often in sportscasting and elsewhere (though perhaps not as much as at its peak a few years ago), is the epitome of empty verbiage, but it's even worse than that somehow. I can't put my finger on it, but when I picture it being used, I see in my mind a well-paid meathead waving away any possibility of equivocation, or even further inquiry, about the matter at hand. It almost sounds like something my hero Kwai Chang Caine would say, but while he was forever roaming the land with an open mind, the "it is what it is" phrase communicates close-mindedness and anti-intellectualism. It isn't what it is, you jerks. It never is. It's something else more concrete and specific and mysterious.
What was the most intractable grammar issue you've grappled with in your writing?
I have plenty of grammar blind spots, so I'm not sure how to answer this except by going with the first thing that leaps to mind, which is my difficulty with the "subjunctive were." I think I developed a problem with this because I read somewhere that you use "were" instead of "was" when a statement is contrary to fact, in other words something that (as I interpreted it) could not happen. But I have such a hard time sorting what can and can't ever happen, I can't tell the difference.
Sounds to me like Josh hit it out of the park. I agree with his answers, except to clarify that the contrary-to-fact subjunctive is usually construed to apply to situations that are not the case, not that could not be the case. However, clarity in the subjunctive-conditional area is about as elusive as clarity as to the exact dimensions of the strike zone: "concrete and specific and mysterious," as Josh put it so well.
What are the most puzzling sports grammar issues you've run into, readers?
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.